St Paul de Vence

St Paul de Vence

Amongst the many acclaimed medieval hill-top walled villages in southern France, St Paul de Vence enjoys an esteemed place. Increasingly popular not only amongst international travellers, this quaint and mostly intact stone settlement is also adoringly frequented by the natives of south-east France. Today it is the most visited medieval village in France.

And it doesn’t take long to realise why. As soon as you enter the main gate – past “Place Charles de Gaulle” where the locals, as in many villages in Provence, play endless games of boules or pétanque, and the cafe once part-owned by Yves Montand – and past the 16th century cannon, you are drawn into the tight streets and cobbled walls of another era. The main road, La rue Grande, is actually a former Roman road. The flower boxes drip colourful foliage and tiny windows are dotted about in the most unexpected places. And, as with most villages of this ilk, there is a small but richly decorated village church.

St Paul de Vence

Small, winding cobbled streets aplenty

It’s clear that many people still live within the walls of the old town (380 people live within the fortified walls), with many of the houses not only well-maintained but thriving. There are small, wall-to-wall cottages, and a few larger free-standing houses. There are many tiny, private alleyways only a few metres wide, and they are all lovingly maintained, presumably by the locals.

Of particular interest to Teddy were the heavily worn steps – bent and curved by centuries of use. Who climbed these stairs? What was their business? How did they live? Certainly Picasso and Matisse and several of their contemporaries spent considerable time here.

The rocky outcrop on which St Paul de Vence sits has been settled since pre-Roman times (and that’s where the name “Provence” originates). The Romans occupied the region around 120BC, and in early Christian times the fortified village was called Castrum Sancti Pauli, St.Paul’s fortress. Most of the old town you see today dates back between only three and six hundred years, and some restoration has occurred.

In the oldest part of the village it’s often difficult to find any straight lines. Many of the sixteenth century walls are bowed or leaning, which only adds to the authenticity. But for a village built almost entirely of stone, it isn’t cold or uninviting, with greenery everywhere to soften the walls and streets. This is chocolate box beauty to warm the heart, and it’s very easy to imagine yourself drawn back in time to a quieter, more human time. The Collegial Church (also called Church of St Paul’s conversion), located on the highest part of the village and easily identified by its square bellower, with its four distinct chapels, has features that date back to the 14th century.

St Paul de Vence is the third most visited place in France outside of Paris, after Mont-St-Michel and Versailles,with around 2.5 million visitors annually. Not surprisingly for a popular tourist destination, most of the retail outlets are geared toward the tourist industry. There are many superb galleries with artworks from talented artists across Europe, and you could easily spend all day just wandering from one to the next. There are restaurants and snack shops aplenty, and not a bad one among them.

From outside the walls, the outline of the city is dominated by the “Tour de la Fondule”, which dates back to the fourteenth century. This defensive tower was primarily a lookout to the valleys on two sides of the town, but was also used as a prison. It was Francois the First, King of France from 1515 to 1547, that is responsible for fortifying the strategic town; one of many at the edge of his kingdom that were the first line of defence against Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V.

St Paul de Vence

So much character in every building

Walking the ramparts is a rewarding experience too. There are stunning views across the surrounding Provencal countryside, and on a clear day you can see from the mountains a little way to the north all the way to the sea at Cagnes-sur-Mer where the planes come in low to land at Nice airport.

If you have the time, the walls and the village are nicely lit at night, and make an attractive, even romantic view from the nearby hills – or perhaps even from a table at one of the excellent restaurants outside the walls.

Within easy driving distance of both Nice and Cannes, the hills around St Paul de Vence are filling quickly with new housing – mostly affluent middle and upper class villas with swimming pools. Cranes and digging equipment abound. In fact, the drive from the coast to St Paul de Vence feels almost like driving through a leafy suburb, even though it’s defined as rural. But that also means there are a number of excellent B&Bs, boutique hotels and houses for rent nearby, as well as a few within the walls.

The village was rediscovered by artists in the 1920s and has been a mecca for artists ever since. Apart from the contemporary galleries, the famous Hotel Colombe d’Or has invaluable art hanging on its walls. André Gide, D.H.Lawrence, Cary Grant, Auguste Renoir all spent time here and Yves Montand and Simone Signoret romanced here.

St Paul de Vence is popular now, and getting more popular, and if it’s a quiet, undiscovered village you’re looking for, then maybe St Paul de Vence is not for you. The attraction, though, is clear, and at St Paul de Vence you’ll find hundreds of years of authentic history to walk through and enjoy.

(Teddy has lots more pictures of St Paul de Vence on the desktop backgrounds page, and the iPhone background page.)

St Paul de Vence

While the buildings and streets are authentic, the shopkeepers are now upmarket galleries


One Response to St Paul de Vence

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